Rwanda: Genocide, Love and Resilience

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I

It was a familiar voice on the other end of the phone.. One that I had heard over coffee or lunch for many years, but missed in the past 7 years.. “How have you been? I have a layover in Atlanta on the 9th, for a couple of hours. I am flying to Rwanda, and have to take the flight to Paris from Atlanta.” .. and again, “Are you sure? It will be 11pm before I get there. Thanks, I am looking forward to it too!” Louis-Marie Ntare was that kind of a guy, he rarely called, but when he did, he did so because he genuinely and fondly thought of you at that moment.. And he spoke in specifics..

Over the next two days two and half days before I was scheduled to meet him, I thought of him a lot..

II

I remember the day I had first met him while working in AT&T, then Bell South.. At 6’2″, he was burly and spoke with a thick French accent. At first glance, it was easy to think of him as not having a heart, let alone any human or soft feelings.. He was only that way by appearance, dark complexion, a close buzz cut to cover his Afro roots.. But deep inside his heart, there was a gold mine for anyone to discover. He had taught me the art of living, and the meaning of humility and gratefulness for life for ever single day I live.

He was truly a world citizen, because he would speak about so many things.. How the taste for black coffee grew on him while living with a Japanese room mate, how he had given shelter to a German soldier – a complete stranger, when conflict broke out at the Berlin wall during his undergrad studies in Germany and how he struggled with learning German while reading concrete, building and mixture material text books at college, and how to get rich by renting 4 unit homes to illegal Mexican immigrants who cannot afford to buy homes.. Just about everything!

But come Monday, he would lovingly bitch about his wife and daughter about the hair chemical treatment for both of them that cost him 400 bucks versus the 30 that he and his son would spend for their hair upkeep.. :) Why were women so complicated he would ask, while coding and solving some of the most complicated Database design issues we had at our company..

Over the years, our family had the fortune of meeting up with theirs.. We had visited one Saturday for drinks and I was pleasantly shocked to step into his Million dollar home – a far cry from his modest bungalow in Rwanda which he shared with his mother, 2 step mothers, 3 sisters and 13 step brothers and sisters..

He had met his future wife while hanging out on the streets after school.. But soon after, he would leave for a college in the next town under heavy recommendation at the local Mayor’s office where his father had a lot of ties – after one of Louis-Marie’s stepmother and brother-in-law were slaughtered in front of his eyes in his childhood home. In any case, the alternative would have been studying 5th grade for the 6th time, because there was no school for anyone once they graduated from their elementary school..

He had seen his cousins and step brothers chase Westerners and their open top jeeps with bare feet to collect the grenades thrown at them as a lure and sell them in the black market for a few drugs and ‘dollars’.. And if they were willing to swing a weapon or two, there was respect that would come with money.. How this little boy defied odds to break the vicious cycle and come so far along was always genuinely intriguing..

He had traveled to Germany on a scholarship in the spring of 1994.. And one night and one day would soon change his life forever.. 1 million people lost their lives, and he would never see the one man that mattered the most.. His father.. No one told him what had become of him, and even if they knew, they would not come forward with the story.. It was Rwanda, and not Ethiopia which has a matriarchal society and so without his father, the family almost but perished.. The girl he had fallen in love with was still in Rwanda, but with a lot of help from well-wishers, friends and a dozen strangers, she is secretly shipped off to Germany, where they wed in the living room of a German college professor.. He would tell us that it was humbling for being the one that survived it all.. That evening my husband and I were thrilled to hear such a lovely romantic story, fit for an epic movie!

But soon afterward, one day, he announced that they were moving out of Atlanta, to a home he owned in Texas.. He had cried like a baby when he lost his 18 year old daughter to a congenital heart disease.. He had spent 250,000$ out of his own money and loans to treat her, stayed in and out of the hospital for 100 days never leaving her side – It had surfaced soon after he was laid off and was on ‘Cobra’ – An insurance policy which has a well-fitting name for its ’cause’.. And so they had to move away from the memories and us..

In 6 months, he had called.. “I will tell you a joke, I was trying to cheer up Tanja, so I went to the Mercedes dealership in my tracks and baseball cap Saturday morning, and they escorted me out because they mistook me for a homeless person.. I had 70,000 cash in my pockets, something I made after selling my condos in Destin.. Of course, I walked next door, and got her a Lexus.. Too bad somebody lost a heavy commission for being an asshole!” I specifically remembered that conversation because he sounded witty and did not sound low from the loss 6 months prior..

III

“Merci beaucoup, Rachana. It means a lot that you came. I know it must have been a struggle taking care of your business for the day, then driving in Atlanta traffic, all for spending a couple of hours with me..”

“Louis-Marie, you know it is always a pleasure! Why Rwanda, and why now?” He had told me in the 20 years that he had left Rwanda, he had never traveled back with his wife or kids as a family. It was a risk, a threat to his family and the few remaining ones living in the country. But he was not to resist temptations to visit, he wanted to see if the nieces and nephews and cousins he was supporting were growing up to be fine citizens or not.

“Gaines understands the atrocities that were committed on the Tutsis.” He said, “But he is there only to repay me, he says. He senses my restlessness and feels the need to do something to turn the country around.. So, he joined the Marine Corps in rebuilding the country – Universities, Government buildings and services, Airport, Food and Health, Education etc, he has been an active part.. I see him on the internet through Skype, but it has been 8 long months and it is just not enough.. I am going to see him for myself and tell him how proud I am.”

It was not surprising to see how far his boy would go to prove to his father how he genuinely appreciated and cared for his happiness. After all, Louis-Marie and Tanja had just lost their first love child and their only remaining boy was going to do something about it.. To fill the hole in their hearts..

A look at my watch told me two hours felt like 2 minutes.. And my eyes were moist.. I resisted my temptations to cry and give him a sad hug, because there was nothing to cry about.. It was an exceptional story of courage that I was listening to!!

“Are you wearing skirts now?? You don’t want anyone to see your back in your pants..?!”

“Ha ha.. Louis, at 47, I don’t need anyone to stare at my behind, right?! Besides, no one seems to care anyway!”

“Scheisse, I would love to disagree..”

I left the airport feeling heavy, amazed at all the things that define a Common man and the Dictator: Money, Pride and Resilience..

Tribute and Dedication: This piece is close to my heart, as it is semi-autobiographical, but the story line is pure fiction. It is a tribute to a person in my life, who has been a great influence on me. His name, profession, his location are not part of the story to fiercely protect his identity.

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What the media tells us:

The US State Department’s Senior Advisor for Innovation, Alec Ross, held up Rwanda as an example of a success story — a country trying to overcome ethnic hatred through economic growth and prosperity. “President Kagame, I think, is taking a fascinating approach to building a 21st century Rwanda. It’s a very small country. It’s landlocked. It doesn’t have the natural resources of its neighbors. So what President Kagame wants to do is to build a knowledge-based economy.”

*

Paul Kagame recently came into power for the 2nd time for the next 7 year period: Labeled a staunch economic reformer by Western governments, but also called a ruthless dictator by his opponents and by human rights groups, Mr. Kagame is widely expected to win by a landslide, at least in part because several of his opponents have been forbidden from participating and others have been killed in what rights groups and analysts suspect were assassinations.

*

Amnesty International USA supports the movie “Lord of War” and thus opposes Arms trafficking:

http://www.amnestyusa.org/artists-for-amnesty/lord-of-war/page.do?id=1104972

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Organization of African Unity, 2000:

A small number of major players could directly have prevented, halted or reduced the slaughter of Rwandans (The 1994 Genocide)

Exercise your right to be informed.

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21 Comments

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  1. You’re really a great storyteller Heart. And this story reminds me of brutal ‘mercenaries’ -paid international soldiers in Uganda who don’t care which side they fight for. What’s happening now in the whole Africa has been happening since the 70’s at least. And I tend to believe there’s a conspiracy to keep Africa that way. I’m glad what you wrote dwelt mostly on the light side!

    Btw, I’m a filipino based in the Philippines and not in US. I don’t blame you for the assumption. Many think that way because more than 50% of my audience come from US :-)

    • Along with illegal arms trafficking, mercenaries is one more conspiracy to exploit politically unrest and poor, illiterate countries! Now India is signing a deal to acquire military hardware in the tens of Billions of dollars.. I don’t understand how countries and their leaders decide on priorities: Is food on the table important or National ‘security’.. Hmmm, the decision seems to be a nobrainer for all the lawmakers!! :) Thanks Pocholo for your comments and insight, and I will update your profile on the blog roll! :))

  2. Would my soul be this affected if I had lived through the devastation of war, dictatorship and massive, selfish destruction? I feel unable to accept the attitude of greedy murderers. I feel helpless as to how to help. Avaaz? Is that enough? Kiva? Is that enough? Am I a wuss because I’ve known only peace? I want to be an active, aware, informed and alert friend who cannot imagine or accept anything but peace for any other human being. Am I that?

    • Thank you Amy, I know, sometimes, I don’t even know why I write!! Does it matter?? Do all these guys that I am imploring to, computer literates? Will this voice ever be heard..?!?! I try to stay strong and write with confidence in my mission, but when I start to question my motives and the results and compare them, that is when I pale out!! Just a heart breaking fact of life!

  3. I know what attracted me to keep reading your posts Rachana … it’s your style of mixing fiction with reality … there’s great storytelling potential in it and you’re doing it with grace … I can’t remember where, but somewhere I read that digression is an important tool in engaging storytelling and I find that very true for your case … the mastery here is that the digression feels like the main storyline, but being fiction, it serves as a carrier for the main message!

    I am struggling to give you 2 cents for the questions of human trafficking, genocide, etc. It is truly disgusting and feels beyond explanation … which collides with my belief that if you manage to understand it, you will be able to change it … and changing the bad side of humanity feels hopelessly beyond control

    While I haven’t been directly dragged into an armed conflict or similar devastation of human lives, I did come very close to it, in two ways.

    Back in my University days, UN/NATO launched bombing attacks on Kosovo. Living in Skopje, no more than 50 kms from the border with Kosovo, I got to hear the bombs live – daily. Many students from outside Skopje fled back to their families, but I persisted. It was gloomy period and I reluctantly remember it, but the pictures of refugees crowding the border to find shelter in Macedonia is still quite vivid!

    The second time, several years later, civil unrest followed in the Northern parts of Macedonia, close to the border with Kosovo. This time I was personally affected, as the unrest reached one of the villages around Skopje — less than 10kms from my home there! More importantly, it affected my family, as my dad, as a policeman, was involved in keeping control over the situation few times. Luckily for him, he was already too old to get into the fire, but that was not the case for some of his young colleagues … many of which he mentored personally — they died (roasted is a more appropriate term!) in an attack on their jeep as they were doing a regular patrol drive … one of the policemen in that car was just out of his teens and a friend of my family … I attended the funeral — not a pleasant site to look at his mom’s and dad’s eyes, I can tell you that much! :-(

    • P.S. To shine some light over this gloomy topic … I wholeheartedly recommend watching http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Qm9cGRub0

      • Amazing Kima, I am now a fan of Dr. Brené Brown!!! I just probably had a stroke of spiritual lightning sent down my spine with her 15 minute speech! Brilliant woman with great ideas.. She is doing us all public service with this speech about social service.. Interesting take on how we be ourselves and embrace vulnerability to be able to do something for others! Thanks for introducing me to her!!

    • Kima you should write about this piece! I found very little literature when I googled it!! It is just unbearable to read about the incident of the police jeep attack!! :( And which country in this world does not have a refugee story?! It is mind boggling what we all share as political unrest situations!! On a lighter note, thanks for ur interpretation about my story writing ‘skills’.. Don’t know if the style is valid or not but I have something saved to say to my critics.. Get the point that I am trying to make and not how I am trying to make it ;)
      And you seem to be thrown into so many amazing life situations, it is interesting to read!! :D

      • It’s hard to find references to the massacre I described if you’re not speaking Macedonian and type your search query in Cyrillic :-( Even for me, after more than 9 years, it is hard to find the images that were circling around the Internet at that time. I could only find this one (while the picture only shows the jeep, it still may not be for the faint of heart!) http://kanal5.com.mk/pictures/upload/vesti/WESTIII/masakr_230_180.jpg … btw, Wikipedia provides some info on the overall conflict and also mentions the massacre http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurgency_in_the_Republic_of_Macedonia

        I am not sure I could write about the past! As you know from my blog and my vision with World4Children, I am trying to look deep into the future and I only use the past to inform my decisions.

        Anyway, I wanted to comment on the style discussion … I love digression myself, which is why I may have recognized something of it in your writing ;-)

        Btw, glad you liked Brene! ;-)

        • Thanks for the links and the information Kima.. The pictures and the website are indeed depressing.. One human to another, how can anyone do this.. ?? Also, please waive off your rights to be represented as a character on an upcoming story anytime in the future.. I have got a lot of ideas for story lines now.. :)
          I understand when you talk about your vision for the future and how you want to concentrate on TED Children etc.. And I wish you good luck with your website for that!! Always!!

  4. you are super sharp and thoughtful to those who need attention.
    beautiful story.
    the images are powerful….

  5. welcome linking in a poem to our potluck today, Thanks in advance!

    http://jinglepoetry.blogspot.com/2010/11/poetry-potluck-buildings-landmarks-and.html

    an award will be given upon participation this week.

  6. Rachana, as always you have handled a devastating subject with grace, compassion, and clarity. I love you for this and for covering hard subjects.

    I believe we do a good thing when we write and inform through our blogs. Look at how much we learn from each other.

    Also, on the positive side, in my lifetime, I’ve not seen such a ground-swell of people who object to and will not support these gross abuses. My friends think I see life “through rose colored glasses” because I feel we can make a difference even with such small efforts. They say we need a great leader. I agree. But when we think of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., who made such a difference, we know that he couldn’t have done it if there wasn’t a grassroots movement already in flow and flower to support his efforts. He rose on that. We may not be the leaders, but we are the grass and the roots and we are preparing the ground for better things to come.

    We cannot and must not give up. We must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And the people who live in these horrific situations need the modest comfort of knowing that we’re pulling for them, that we’re not sitting here fat, dumb, and happy and not giving our sisters and brothers a thought.

    Beside, this is the world that your young children are growing up in. We need to work to make sure theirs is a better world. This is the world that my adult son and his wife will grow old in. We need to make sure they grow old in peace.

    Hang tough, Rachana, and blog on.

    Peace and Hugs,
    Jamie

    • Thanks Jamie for letting me borrow your rose spectacles! It is beautiful out there, yes, I hope for hope.. And as you put it so well, “We must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”.
      Thank you, as always for your insights!

  7. Hello Heart , i comment your blog , be a nice blog and useful. Best for me. Best review for A piece of my mind and Rwanda content. I will plan to read and review your website.

  8. You are a powerful writer, Heart. I look forward to ready more of your work. So glad I found you.

    Cheers,
    Teri

    http://yourlifesentence.wordpress.com/

    • Teri, thanks for the kind words of appreciation, I have looked around your blog and find your blog quite interesting too! Thanks for leading me to yours by visiting me! It is genuinely refreshing for someone to read and sympathize with the not so pleasant realities of our lives and the underdogs around us..
      Thank you!
      Rachana.

  9. hello Heart , i look your blog , that a nice blog and greatly. Good for everyone. best review for Life! and Conspiracy content. i will plan to read and review your site.

    • Couldn’t resist fishing you out of spam, if not for the “Conspiracy” word.. Will categorize this as a well meaning troll but still not supportive of your sneaky advertising business!
      Thanks!
      The Blog Trollers’ Feedback Society™

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